Cliff Cawthon Makes Community Development Focus of Kent City Council Run

by Chamidae Ford

Cliff Cawthon recently announced his candidacy for Kent City Council position 4, running against incumbent Toni Troutner. The adjunct professor at Bellevue College is centering his campaign around community development and engagement. 

His plans range from creating year-round farmers markets to address food deserts to strengthening tenants rights and addressing the housing crisis. 

Cawthon is a longtime community organizer and activist. He was a part of the nation’s first Renters Commission in Seattle and has been a longtime advocate for workers’ rights, tenants’ rights, and social justice issues. 

Originally from Buffalo, NY, Cawthon has lived in Washington for seven years and is currently a Kent homeowner with his fiancé. 

South Seattle Emerald: You have done a lot of things: traveled to Cuba and Egypt for humanitarian and activism purposes, you are an educator, activist, journalist. Can you tell me about how these experiences have made you want to run for office?

Cliff Cawthon: I’ve always wanted to be involved, not just because of my own family’s background, not just because of my lived experience, but also, I sincerely believe that we can make things better and make our communities stronger, healthier, and happier. So that experience of Cuba in particular, I went on the U.S.-Cuba friendshipment caravan when I was 18 and 19; I was just getting out of high school. I was interning at the Western New York Peace Center after getting involved in protest [and] joining the Working Families Party. And then, working summers canvassing for the New York Public Interest Research Group as a young teenager, ever since I was 13, I was getting involved in protests and activism because of my lived experience as a young black man in Buffalo, learning about and seeing the same kind of inequality that we still see today. 

And where I grew up in Buffalo is — in some ways, there are many things in Kent that remind me of things back East, but also my fiancé grew up here in Kent. And when we first met, we were exchanging stories, and she grew up far differently than me, but her story, and some of the things that she went through and some of the things that I heard other folks go through while I was working on the Fight for $15 campaign or while I was working on various tenants rights concerns here in Kent — I saw a lot of parallels. But going back to these humanitarian experiences and how they really shaped my perspective on things — we were traveling across the country, I was really able to meet a lot of people that wanted to do good, but also I was able to broaden my perspectives by meeting all sorts of folks that were going through various situations. And when I went to Cuba and we donated about two tons of medical aid for students, like books for children and things like that — people are grateful. But after doing that twice, I also had people come up and talk to me and share real experiences about what it was like dealing with the government. And it deepened my commitment to not just study politics but [to] want to undermine the status quo for those that have been unheard. 

Because at the end of the day, whether it’s Cuba, whether it’s the United States, whether it’s Mexico, I listened to people who in one way or another are completely unheard by the status quo. So that’s always been a driver for me. [When I] went to Egypt and I met with people who were involved in the [Arab Spring] protest, people who were involved in organizing the camp and blockades — I went there as a grad student, [and] I really came to value the importance of our democratic process, but more importantly, they taught me just from a practical view how revolutions were done right in the 21st century. Because at this point I realized that a lot of the rhetoric we use in the United States, albeit very engaging — we actually do have a lot of power. We actually have a lot of power when it comes to our political process and therefore, we should utilize it. We should utilize all of it [so] that when we talk about identity [and] diversity of tactics as organizers, that we really should utilize the diversity of tactics, including in the electoral realm. 

And let me be very clear, [the electoral realm] is not made for us. The electoral system from the local level all the way to the federal level is not made for us when it comes to candidates of color. In addition to some of the double standards I’ve already had thrown at me, in terms of just fundraising credibility, all these different hoops, including some of the more structural expectations, like filing deadlines and the way that major organizations structure meetings. [But] if we’re going to struggle for justice in the United States — and we should — then we should use all the means that we, quite frankly, are privileged to have. 

[In regards to teaching,] I got the idea from my fiancé to try to teach. I reached out to her former teacher, who’s my colleague and is the chair now of the department. And I said, ‘Hey, well, I have a master’s degree in political science. I have this experience. I can bring this grassroots outsider perspective. Can I teach with you?’ And then he said yes. I went through an interview; the current chair at the time was my colleague, and he liked what I had to offer. So they offered me an adjunct position and I’ve been teaching at Bellevue College ever since. 

SSE: You mention on your website that you are an activist for housing justice, tenants’ rights, workers’ rights, and racial justice. How are those reflected in the plans you have for City Council? 

CC: I actually never stopped organizing. In fact, my first job when I came back to Buffalo was as an organizer and training for UFCW Local One where I was a union salt. And that was after interning with the Coalition for Economic Justice back in Buffalo. So I worked as a union salt for a while in order to learn about labor organizing and also to be a part of a struggle that I’m very passionate about, the fight for workers’ rights. I come from a union family — my mom works at the IRS still to this day. I was with the Working Families Party in New York when I was younger. 

So I’ve always been passionate about the fight for workers’ rights. I bring a grassroots activist experience and the energy to Council. Everyone I talk to says that they want new energy and ideas. And quite frankly, I am someone who is willing to bring people to the table who have not been heard — bring groups to listen to. Like many of the youth groups that are organizing now or groups like the Tenants Union or the NAACP. As well as, groups like Living Well. I want to bring those folks to the table so that the people, kids who want to see Kent become much more — Kent is already beautiful but to see the community become better and to have someone who will fiercely fight and advocate for every single voice in this city — I want to bring to the table with that energy. 

The City of Kent needs to bring in contractors of color. We need to not just do better at that but we need to look at federal standards of affirmative action. I know this is going to be controversial, but I want to be the city that goes beyond the standards that we are hamstrung by [like] I-200. And focus on intentionally recruiting contractors of color for our infrastructure jobs as well as for other work that the City has going on. I want to focus intently on affirmatively advertising and even coming up with plans on how to undermine that racist law [I-200] and the trends that it’s created also in terms of housing and homelessness. I look at what the City is doing with the South King Housing and Homeless partnership. And I think, ‘Well before demanding all of that … on the State level, why aren’t we doing that on a City level?’ Especially when it comes to a just-cause eviction ordinance in June: once the state’s eviction moratorium runs out … we’re going to see a tsunami of evictions. And the Housing Justice Project; they did a study [that found] that Black households are dragged to eviction court at a higher rate. So that’s a problem to me, and it’s not just an economic problem. It’s a racial justice problem. 

And last but not least, when it comes to tenants’ rights that I’m going to be pushing for not just pause [the] eviction ordinance but a suite of tenants’ protection. So if someone doesn’t pay their rent or if someone’s ripping up the property, in my eyes, they violated that contract with their landlord. But if they’re just trying to do the right thing or if they may have a past and they want to move on with their life, they shouldn’t face discrimination because of their status as an ex-felon, nor should they face discrimination because they may use a section eight voucher, or they may use benefits to pay for their housing, or furthermore, the landlord shouldn’t just be able to terminate a lease at will. We should have a ban-the-box housing legislation [and] we should empower code enforcement.

SSE: You talk a lot about reimagining public safety by holding law enforcement accountable and creating a civilian oversight committee. How do you plan to hold officers accountable and what does a reimagined public safety look like to you?

CC: We’re the most diverse city in the state of Washington. Yet what happened recently with Giovanni Joseph-Mcdade and what has happened with other instances of police misconduct — we could do far better. Particularly one thing I would want to do immediately once I get on the dais is to ban pit maneuvers. The pursuit intervention technique — that kind of maneuver, especially since it was done in a residential area, could have hurt more residents. 

So in addition to banning pit maneuvers, here’s what the accountability would look like. I would empower our version of the police advisory board here in the city. I would empower them in a similar fashion that the Community Police Commission was empowered in Seattle in order to not just make recommendations to the City but also to increase their independence from the KPD [Kent Police Department] in terms of them being able to bring the real perspective in there — the voice of the community. But more importantly, I would center the experiences of victims of police misconduct, and I would work to bring them to that space. Furthermore, I would work with Chief Padilla. I would do my due diligence and try to work with them and also I would push for a change in policy [regarding] the kind of choking maneuvers … putting their knees on the back of a suspect or a tasing. 

In fact, community members released two videos of Kent police officers in 2020. One used a taser on a young woman while she was handcuffed, the other officers manhandled someone who had their back beat into a fence to try to defend themselves. They weren’t going to hurt anyone. I know for a fact that there are some officers that go to work and they genuinely want to do good work, but I ask those officers to walk with us, you know, in terms of holding those who are ignoring the best practices for policing in the 21st century, that aren’t upholding the spirit of Black Lives Matter, joining us and holding them accountable. So the community can build trust in you, in your work, because it’s only when the City and the police lead by action, that’s when the community is going to trust the police. That’s when I, as a homeowner, will feel comfortable calling the police. And I’ve heard so many anecdotal concerns from residents where they just don’t trust the police and given recent events, it’s understandable why they don’t.

SSE: You mentioned on your website you want to embrace Kent’s diversity and create more engagement. Can you talk about some of the ways you plan to do that and why you think it’s important? 

CC: I’ve heard from a couple of community supporters and community groups … that while the City prides itself on working with the community, there are a lot of community groups that are trying to do a lot of good work that don’t receive adequate support from the City. Or at least that the relationship is one in which they don’t feel completely comfortable with going the distance and they have to compete with other less community-based organizations for funding and support. For me when I’m on the Council, if you are in the community and you’re trying to do work that brings cultural awareness that improves people’s access to food, that lifts up youth and gives youth something to do, and also if you are attempting to address an issue when it comes to the environment, hit me up. Come to me, because I am going to be your advocate. I’m going to be the one during City Council meetings asking, ‘What about this pot of money? Would this money go towards community?’ So, one is partnering with community groups and advocating for them. 

Two, when it comes to embracing that diversity, it means also, quite frankly, working with more groups anchored in communities of color. So, it’s a kind of not-so-hidden secret that there are a number of groups that are led by communities of color that do work with the City. But there are a number of groups that get priority. That particularly, from the feedback I’ve gotten from some residents, that they feel are much older, much more established, that aren’t really anchored in community. When it comes to embracing that diversity as well, it also means making sure that we have a robust equity lens in everything we do. So as a City Council member, what I intend to do is empower the director of race and equity. There will be some COVID money that I’ve learned will be allocated to him, but I want to flesh that department out. I want to flesh that department out and allocate funding to it. 

I want to see an equity and racial justice assessment to every one of the policies we undertake, but also I want to see that rolled in with civil rights monitoring enforcement. Because you see cities leading with civil rights enforcement and monitoring on a local level. And given that we are such a diverse city, I would like to see a more robust effort put up with that by, frankly, hiring from our community — and not just the Black community but our various, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic communities in order to provide that lived experience. And also we have many technically talented people. And there are many young leaders that are doing the work out there that could use that support and recognition. So I want to be a platform for them to really hold us accountable as a city.

SSE: You have plans to create more food banks in Kent and start all-year-round farmers markets in Kent neighborhoods. Can you talk about why food security is one of your main priorities and how you plan to implement these programs?

CC: On an economic level, I’m a big supporter of starting an International Market or the International District. We already have various enclaves of immigrant and refugee-owned businesses. I say that we should be promoting that either by having our night market be year-round and connecting that to immigrant, BIPOC, and refugee-owned businesses or by affirmatively advertising. Really build up one of these enclaves as an International District, because we have people from all over the world that live in Kent. 

I think it’s also the City more affirmatively partnering with different mosques and temples and different ethnic and religious organizations in order to promote and to really build up their events. In fact, we have groups like Living Well Kent that are working to help put on farmers markets. I want to see more of that. I want to see more farmers markets — particularly to replicate what we see, for example, in Rainier Beach — and combine that with what we see with Living Well Kent here. So we have farmers markets that provide healthy food in all of our neighborhoods and that we can bring in local farmers, farmers of color, or even local artists and have them set up stands. That was something that the community specifically touched. Community members in our kitchen cabinet provided me with that insight because there are many places in Kent according to the feedback we got from the community, that are food deserts. If someone doesn’t have a car, then it will take them a good amount of time, either on a bus or on foot, to get to healthy food. And for me, I see the farmers markets as a part of the solution to that. 

But also by — and this actually goes into my plans on housing and equitable development — that I want to work with people in the City to come up with an equitable development plan that allows us, by mirroring some of the best practices we see throughout the region. Because there’s a lot of brilliance in south King County, a lot of work that’s being done that a lot of people just focus on Seattle — we look at Auburn, look at Renton, right here in Kent, right in Tukwila, there’s a lot of people doing good work but don’t have the support or recognition in order to really push that forward. The farmers market will be a link in that chain. But also with an equitable development plan that will — at least long-term we’ll see a result of mitigating those food deserts in some of our neighborhoods. 

SSE: You mentioned you want to strengthen South King Housing and Homeless Partners (SKHHP). What other ways are you planning to address the housing crisis?

CC: First of all, to declare it a crisis here in the city. The second would be to change our approach to homelessness, because one thing I hear from a number of residents is, ‘Oh, I’m concerned about the homeless.’ And for a number of residents, particularly for some residents who have been very vocal, that they see homelessness as a nuisance. But for me, I see them as brothers and sisters and neighbors that need support in this fight against the housing crisis. And we have a regional housing crisis that is producing homelessness every single day. 

So what I want to do is continue to work with SKHHP, but I want to bring a lot of the recommendations at least we agree to on the surface and do them locally, because even though we’re part of SKHHP, that when it comes to those tenants protections and particularly money to build affordable housing, that I think that Kent needs to be a more proactive player locally. As a City Councilmember, what I will do is intensely look at how we can bring those regional affordable housing dollars and use our own resources to create affordable housing here. But also to expand our stock of medium-cost housing. Because there are a lot of working folks that can’t afford the really expensive housing, but also they make too much for low-income housing. And then there are a lot of folks who are in what you would think would be somewhat affordable housing or naturally occurring affordable housing, but that’s increasingly being phased out of the housing stock in favor of market-rate housing. And that’s something we’ve seen — that’s something we see all over the region. And this is why we have to have a robust stock of housing. So if you make a bunch of money and you can afford some of these newer apartments that are being built, for example, on Meeker street, that looks very nice, right. There should also be affordable, healthy, and safe housing in both. Affordable housing that effectively builds on the gains that we have from development. And that’s where creating a house style plan for Kent figures in here and utilizing community benefits agreements. 

SSE: Anything else you would like to add? 

CC: I am someone who believes that the City of Kent wants courageous and effective leadership. And I’m someone who, as a community organizer, as a long-time activist, as an educator and long-term journalist. I’m someone that’s ready to step up, ready to fight for my neighbors and all of my neighbors. Democrat, Republican, Black, white, Brown, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, whomever. I’m ready to fight for them because I love my neighbors, that is why I bought a house here. My fiance’s from here, and we decided to buy a house here because we believe in Kent. I believe in Kent. And I believe that we can be better. So I humbly ask folks for their support.

Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.

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